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Canoes have been used for transportation, fishing, and recreation for centuries. And the materials used to construct them have evolved over time.
Traditional materials such as wood, bark, and animal skins have been used for thousands of years by Indigenous peoples and continue to be used by some modern-day canoe builders.
In recent years, modern materials such as aluminum, fiberglass, and polyethylene have become popular choices due to their durability, light weight, and ease of maintenance.
The choice of canoe material depends on a variety of factors such as the intended use, budget, and personal preference.
So, which one is best?
Wood canoes can be traced back thousands of years. Today’s wooden canoes are a little different to the ones that were carved out of trees. But they are still often made by hand.
This can make them more expensive than other types of canoes, as a cedar strip canoe can take longer to build because of the more intricate construction techniques. Wood canoes tend to require a lot of maintenance to keep them in tip-top condition.
Most wood canoes are made from cedar or birch bark. But there are also wooden canoes made from marine grade plywood. Some will also feature wooden components made with other types of wood, such as pine.
Wooden canoes tend to be heavier than other canoes, such as fiberglass composites or Kevlar composites. But these vessels can be more appealing to some paddlers because of their esthetics and heritage. They can often be pieces of art and are usually custom-made to order, making them one-of-a-kind boats.
Plastic Canoes (Polyethylene)
Plastic canoes are generally polyethylene canoes. This is probably the best canoe material if you are a beginner, as it is incredibly durable and easy to maintain. Polyethylene canoes are also usually very affordable and ideal for recreational paddling.
Polyethylene canoes vary quite widely when it comes to weight. Some can be relatively lightweight but others can be very heavy, depending on the overall price.
The more expensive the plastic canoe, generally the lighter it is. But these types of boats will usually be some of the heaviest canoes compared with most of the other materials.
Rental outfitters will often have polyethylene canoes for rent. But these canoes are generally not known for their speed and performance.
A plastic or polyethylene canoe will generally feature a construction method that uses plastic pellets in a heated mold to create a uniform hull. Some may offer additional components and other materials, such as a wood trim.
Aluminum canoes are built to be tough but they are not known for their light weight.
Aluminum is an extremely durable canoe material so these vessels do tend to last a long time. While they can be lighter than some wood canoes, aluminum canoes will often be heavier than other types of canoes.
Canoes made from aluminum can be great for beginners, as they are able to withstand multiple knocks, bumps, and scrapes. But these canoes are usually not built for speed.
They can often be found in rental outfitters and campgrounds because of their family-friendly design.
Fiberglass canoes are composite canoes that tend to be closer to the top end of the scale when it comes to price, though they are not the most expensive canoes. This canoe material is known for its high performance qualities, including speed and improved glide.
A fiberglass canoe will often be lighter than other types of canoe, except usually a Kevlar canoe or an inflatable canoe.
Fiberglass is generally considered one of the best canoe materials. However, fiberglass composite canoes can be more difficult and expensive to maintain and repair. A fiberglass hull is also more susceptible to damage, making these boats less beginner-friendly than plastic or aluminum canoes.
Kevlar canoes are composite canoes that are usually much lighter than fiberlgass ones. Kevlar is a woven composite fabric that is often used in the aerospace industry and in the manufacture of bullet-proof vests and body armor. This means it’s extra tough.
However, they are not indestructible and can be easier to damage than plastic or aluminum canoes. The epoxy or gel coating can become cracked or chipped if bumped which exposes the Kevlar fibers and woven fabrics in the construction. This can be expensive to repair.
You may still see Royalex canoes for sale as used boats, but these are no longer available as new. These vessels were discontinued when the manufacturer ceased production of the Royalex material in 2014.
A Royalex canoe was a stiff and lightweight canoe that was highly durable, more so than Kevlar composite canoes. The strength of this canoe material made it a good choice for whitewater canoeing and wilderness tripping.
Tuffstuff canoes are similar to Royalex in that they are made using composite materials that are incredibly strong and durable but also lightweight. TuffStuff canoes are exclusive to Nova Craft Canoes.
These canoes are designed to be lightweight and tough enough to withstand even being dropped from a great height. This makes TuffStuff one of the best canoe materials for a whitewater canoe, as it has the durability and flexibility to handle rough water.
Like fiberglass composites, these boats also feature an epoxy coating, like a plastic laminate to protect against scrapes and abrasions, However, this can become chipped and scratched in an impact.
Carbon canoes can be the most expensive of all the canoes. Carbon is an extremely lightweight canoe material and is known for its performance. Like Kevlar and fiberglass composite canoes, carbon fiber canoes can be easily damaged and expensive to repair.
Carbon canoes are generally aimed at more experienced paddlers and are usually for flatwater paddling only rather than wilderness trips.
Inflatable canoes tend to be made out of PVC or vinyl and are much lighter than a wood canoe or aluminum canoe. There are some that may feature rubber or ripstop nylon. An inflatable canoe has a high level of durability, contrary to what you might expect.
These are incredibly tough boats that can withstand lots of bumps and scrapes with durable materials on the hull to provide abrasion resistance. Inflatable canoes are also easy to repair if you do get a puncture. And most of them come with a patch kit to let you repair it yourself while you’re on the go.
Good inflatable canoes will tend to be extremely buoyant and can be ideal for beginners or if you’re heading into rough waters. Some will have expanded closed cell foam for additional buoyancy and a canoe spray deck for whitewater paddling.
A traditional canoe is made out of wood. Wood canoes can trace their history back thousands of years when they were used as early vessels to transport people and goods.
The oldest canoe ever discovered was found in The Netherlands in 1955 and is believed to date back to the Mesolithic period, between 8040 BCE and 7510 BCE. That makes it roughly 10,000 years old.
Traditionally, a wood canoe was a dugout canoe. This means the canoe was carved from a tree that was hollowed out to create the initial shape. Modern canoes tend to retain this basic shape in that they are long and narrow compared to other types of boats.
Early vessels also often used animal skins stretched over whale bones or other animal skeletons. Today, a similar canoe construction style might be found in wood and canvas canoes that feature a wooden frame with a canvas material stretched over the frame.
The toughest canoe material available today is probably TuffStuff. This could be the best material if you’re looking for strength and durability, making it a wise choice for recreational paddlers as well as for wilderness trips on whitewater rivers.
Video: TuffStuff Expedition Canoe Drop
A wooden canoe can also be a good canoe material in terms of toughness and durability. When properly maintained and taken care of, a wooden canoe will last a very long time and will generally outlast most other types of canoe materials.
There are various types of canoe materials, each offering its own advantages and disadvantages. A traditional wooden canoe can be preferable over fiberglass composites for some recreational paddlers based on strength, esthetics, and heritage. For others, light weight and ease of use may take precedence, making a modern material much more appealing.
The best material for a canoe will be one that suits your type of paddling and your budget.
Let us know your thoughts on these canoe materials and tell us which one you prefer. Don’t forget to share this with your buddies.